Wild city: Risk assessment

I rode in the Door County Century Bike Ride on Sep. 11. I trained for four months, much of that time hoping to ride the biggest of the loops, the 100-miler. That did not come to pass.

I had sensed that a bike ride on the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks might have some dark energy in it. Then early in my training period, while I was adapting to new shoes, the kind that snap onto bike pedals, I fell, banged up my knee and wrenched my ankle.

My joints were fine, if a little sore for a time. Skinned knees heal.

After a couple of weeks I was back out there on my bike. It took quite a bit longer to get over the discomfort of being clipped onto my bike, though. It made me uneasy. It made biking seem hazardous. I had reluctantly given myself over; my body had become part of a machine. Eventually I reframed the relationship: the bike was an extension of me, it was doing my bidding.

By late July I was still thinking I could do the long version of the September ride. A 50-mile training ride on the North Shore was glorious, the best ever. But then on my next outing back in town I encountered a season’s worth of problems: I got a flat tire, lost a screw from the cleat on my shoe, lost my wallet, and strained a knee muscle (on the nonbanged-up knee).

I had to back off once again, heal and strengthen that bothered knee muscle, and gradually build up to longer rides. During August, while I did this, I kept hearing about people who had been hurt or killed while biking. It was uncanny. So I was nervous again.

I was riding along on a day when these stories weighed especially heavily on me and a car parked in a driveway up ahead suddenly lurched backward into my path. I stopped in time, but just. I went home wondering: Is biking just too dangerous?

Assessing risk is a tricky business. I did what I could do, I took precautions and rode defensively. I was trying to make decisions about my own personal safety. It is quite another thing to be deciding the safety of thousands.

I’ve been thinking and writing about this proposed mega-project, the Keystone XL oil pipeline that would run from Canada to Texas. A man named John Stansbury happened to go to a public meeting in Nebraska to hear about the pipeline, which would cross his state (as well as Montana, South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas). He brought his grandson to show him democracy in action.

Stansbury, 61, an engineer and professor from Omaha, is an expert in the transport of hazardous materials. After the meeting he did his own independent assessment of the risks posed by the pipeline and was so alarmed he went public with his findings.

This pipeline would cross major rivers, including the Missouri, the Yellowstone, and the Platte, and be built over the Ogallala Aquifer, which many people in the plains states rely on for drinking water. There are places in Nebraska where the water table is very near the surface.

According to Stansbury’s assessment, the pipeline could have 91 significant spills over the next 50 years, rather than 11, which is what TransCanada, the energy company proposing the pipeline, predicts. According to Stansbury’s numbers, spills could happen, on average, nearly twice a year.

If the toxic tar sands oil that the pipeline is to carry spills into a river it would spread pollutants, such as carcinogenic benzene, in excess of federal standards, hundreds of miles downstream, according to Stansbury’s report.

I spoke with a guy from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency this summer who responds to oil spills. His modus operandi: “What humans build will fail.”

When my husband and I arrived in Door County, just after we’d crossed the county line, I asked him where the name came from. I had read some of the county history, but had not seen anything about the name. He said he hated to tell me.

Door County is a peninsula that sticks up into Lake Michigan. Between the top of the peninsula and a nearby island there is a strait where navigation is hazardous. It is scattered with shipwrecks. The strait is called Death’s Door.

I looked at him. “The name of the county is short for Death’s Door? I’m doing this ride on Sept. 11 on Death’s Door?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

I had to laugh.

Ride day was sunny and warm. I had my choice: a 30, 50, 70 or a 100-mile loop. I went conservative and did the 50. Given everything, it seemed wise to let humility rule.

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at 
The Loft Literary Center.